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"Why, I haven't learned it. I've studied it a couple of years."

"Can you tell me how a particle can be a wave?"

"What? Star, that's quantum mechanics, not calculus. I could give an explanation but it wouldn't mean anything; I don't have the math. An engineer doesn't need it."

"It would be simplest," she said diffidently, "to answer your question by saying ‘magic' just as you answered mine with ‘quantum mechanics.' But you don't like that word, so all I can say is that after you study higher geometries, metaphysical and conjectural as well as topological and judicial—if you care to make such study—I will gladly answer. But you won't need to ask."

(Ever been told: "Wait till you grow up, dear; then you will understand"? As a kid I didn't like it from grownups; I liked it still less from a girl I was in love with when I was fully grown.)

Star didn't let me sulk; she shifted the talk. "Some crossbreedings are from neither accidental slippages nor planned travel. You've heard of incubi and succubi?"

"Oh, sure. But I never bother my head with myths."

"Not myths, darling, no matter how often the legend has been used to explain embarrassing situations. Witches and warlocks are not always saints and some acquire a taste for rape. A person who has learned to open Gates can indulge such vice; he—or she—can sneak up on a sleeping person—maid, chaste wife, virgin boy—work his will and be long gone before cockcrow." She shuddered. "Sin at its nastiest. If we catch them, we kill them. I've caught a few, I killed them. Sin at its worst, even if the victim learns to like it." She shuddered again.

"Star, what is your definition of ‘sin'?"

"Can there be more than one? Sin is cruelty and injustice, all else is peccadillo. Oh, a sense of sin comes from violating the customs of your tribe. But breaking custom is not sin even when it feels so; sin is wronging another person."

"How about ‘sinning against God'?" I persisted.

She looked at me sharply. "So again we shave the barber? First, milord, tell me what you mean by ‘God.' "

"I just wanted to see if you would walk into it."

"I haven't walked into that one in a mort of years. I'd as lief thrust with a bent wrist, or walk a pentacle in clothes. Speaking of pentacles, my Hero, our destination is not what it was three days ago. Now we go to a Gate I had not expected to use. More dangerous but it can't be helped."

"My fault! I'm sorry, Star."

"My fault, milord. But not all loss. When we lost our luggage I was more worried than I dared show—even though I was never easy about carrying firearms through a world where they may not be used. But our foldbox carried much more than firearms, things we are vulnerable without. The time you spent in soothing the hurt to the Doral's ladies I spent—in part—in wheedling the Doral for a new kit, almost everything heart could wish but firearms. Not all loss."

"We are going to another world now?"

"Not later than tomorrow dawn, if we live."

"Damn it, Star, both you and Rufo talk as if each breath might be our last."

"As it might be."

"You're not expecting an ambush now; we're still on Doral land. But Rufo is as full of dire forebodings as a cheap melodrama. And you are almost as bad."

"I'm sorry. Rufo does fret—but he is a good man at your back when trouble starts. As for me, I have been trying to be fair, milord, to let you know what to expect."

"Instead you confuse me. Don't you think it's time you put your cards face up?"

She looked troubled. "And if the Hanging Man is the first card turned?"

"I don't give a hoot! I can face trouble without fainting—"

"I know you can, my champion."

"Thanks. But not knowing makes me edgy. So talk."

"I will answer any question, milord Oscar. I have always been willing to." "But you know that I don't know what questions to ask. Maybe a carrier pigeon doesn't need to know what the war is about—but I feel like a sparrow in a badminton game. So start from the beginning."

"As you say, milord. About seven thousand years ago—" Star stopped. "Oscar, do you want to know—now all the interplay of politics of a myriad worlds and twenty universes over millennia in arriving at the present crisis? I'll try if you say, but just to outline it would take more time than remains until we must pass through that Gate. You are my true champion; my life hangs on your courage and skill. Do you want the politics behind my present helpless, almost hopeless predicament—save for you! Or shall I concentrate on the tactical situation?"

(Damn it! I did want the whole story.) "Let's stick to the tactical situation. For now."

"I promise," she said solemnly, "that if we live through it, you shall have every detail. The situation is this: I had intended us to cross Nevia by barge, then through the mountains to reach a Gate beyond the Eternal Peaks. That route is less risky but long.

"But now we must hurry. We will turn off the road late this afternoon and pass through some wild country, and country still worse after dark. The Gate there we must reach before dawn; with luck we may sleep. I hope so, because this Gate takes us to another world at a much more dangerous exit.

"Once there, in that world—Hokesh it is called, or Karth—in Karth-Hokesh we shall be close, too close, to a tall tower, mile high, and, if we win to it, our troubles start. In it is the Never-Born, the Eater of Souls."

"Star, are you trying to scare me?"

"I would rather you were frightened now, if such is possible, than have you surprised later. My thought, milord, had been to advise you of each danger as we reached it, so that you could concentrate on one at a time. But you overruled me."

"Maybe you were right. Suppose you give me details on each as we come to it, just the outline now. So I'm to fight the Eater of Souls, am I? The name doesn't scare me; if he tries to eat my soul, he'll throw up. What do I fight him with? Spit?"

"That is one way," she said seriously, "but, with luck, we won't fight him—it—at all. We want what it guards."

"And what is that?"

"The Egg of the Phoenix."

"The Phoenix doesn't lay eggs."

"I know, milord. That makes it uniquely valuable."


She hurried on. "That is its name. It is a small object, somewhat larger than an ostrich egg and black. If I do not capture it, many bad things will happen. Among them is a small one: I will die. I mention that because it may not seem small to you—my darling! -- and it is easier to tell you that one truth than it is to explain the issues."

"Okay. We steal the Egg. Then what?"

"Then we go home. To my home. After which you may return to yours. Or remain in mine. Or go where you list, through Twenty Universes and myriad worlds. Under any choice, whatever treasure you fancy is yours; you will have earned it and more...as well as my heartfelt thanks, milord Hero, and anything you ask of me."

(The biggest blank check ever written—If I could cash it.) "Star, you don't seem to think we will live through it."

She took a deep breath. "Not likely, milord. I tell you truth. My blunder has forced on us a most desperate alternative."

"I see. Star, will you marry me? Today?"

Then I said, "Easy there! Don't fall!" She hadn't been in danger of falling; the seat belt held her. But she sagged against it. I leaned over and put my arm around her shoulders. "Nothing to cry about. Just give me a yes or a no—and I fight for you anyway. On, I forgot. I love you. Anyhow I think it's love. A funny, fluttery feeling whenever I look at you or think about you—which is mostly."

"I love you, milord," she said huskily. "I have loved you since I first saw you. Yes, a ‘funny, fluttery feeling' as if everything inside me were about to melt down."